Charismatics generally define the gift of tongues as a devotional prayer language that is available to every believer. This prayer language, according to its proponents, is not bound to the linguistic structures of earthly, human languages. In other words, it is not a real language — but rather “angelic” speech which supposedly transcends human language.
But therein lies a problem. On the one hand, the charismatic version of tongues does not consist of real human languages. On the other hand, Acts 2 makes it clear that the tongues spoken at Pentecost were real human languages.
So how can modern charismatics justify a type of “tongues” that does not fit the biblical description in Acts 2?
Proponents of modern tongues usually answer that question by asserting that there are at least two types of tongues in the New Testament. Charismatic blogger Adrian Warnock summed up the charismatic position like this:
One thing that most of us agree on is that there are different kinds of tongues…. I think it is fair to say that the tongues of 1 Corinthians are different from those of Acts 2. Paul himself speaks here of different kinds of tongues. It is at least possible that at different points in this passage [1 Cor. 12–14] Paul is talking about different forms of tongues.
In this post, I want to briefly respond to the idea that the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14 is somehow qualitatively different than in Acts 2.
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Is the gift of tongues in Acts the same as in 1 Corinthians?
Without giving an in-depth exegetical treatment of the related passages, here are some initial observations that suggest that there is no qualitative difference between the two:
1. Same Source (the Holy Spirit)
Acts – The miraculous tongues in Acts were directly related to the working of the Holy Spirit (2:4, 18; 10:44–46; 19:6). In fact, tongue-speaking is evidence of having received the “gift” of the Holy Spirit (10:45).
1 Corinthians – As in Acts, the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians was directly related to the working of the Holy Spirit (12:1, 7, 11, etc.). Similarly, the gift of tongues is an evidence (or “manifestation”) of having received the Holy Spirit (12:7).
2. Same Recipients (apostles and non-apostles)
Acts – Along those lines, in Acts 11:15–17, Peter implies that the tongue-speaking of Acts 10 was the same as that of Acts 2, even noting that Cornelius and his household had received the same gift (dorea) as the apostles on the Day of Pentecost. This indicates that the tongues of the Apostles (in Acts 2) was not limited just to the Apostles, but was also experienced (at least) by both Cornelius’s household (Acts 10) and the disciples of Apollos (Acts 19).
1 Corinthians – Paul, as an Apostle, possessed the gift of tongues (14:18). Yet he recognized that there were those in the Corinthian church who also possessed the gift.
3. Same Description (speaking gift consisting of content that could be meaningfully interpreted)
Acts – The miraculous ability, as it is described in Acts 2, is the supernatural ability to speak in other tongues (meaning foreign languages) (2:4, 9–11).
1 Corinthians – As in Acts, the gift of tongues is described as a speaking gift (12:30; 14:2, 5). The fact that it can be interpreted/translated (12:10; 14:5, 13) indicates that it consisted of an authentic foreign language, similar to the tongues of Acts 2. (Paul’s direct association of tongue-speaking with foreign languages in 14:10–11 and also his reference to Isaiah 28:11, 12 strengthens this claim.)
4. Same Terminology (“glossa”)
Acts – The primary word for tongues in Acts is “glossa” (2:4, 11; 10:46; 19:6), although it is also described with the word “dialekto” on two occasions (2:6, 8).
1 Corinthians –As in Acts, the primary word for tongues in 1 Corinthians 12–14 is “glossa” (12:10, 28; 13:1, 8; 14:2, 4, 5, 9, 13, 18, 19, 22, 23, 26, 27, 39), though Paul also uses the term “phoneo” twice (in 14:10–11).
It is important to note that Luke (the author of Acts) was a close associate of Paul (the writer of 1 Corinthians). Luke wrote the book of Acts at least five years after Paul wrote his first epistle to the church at Corinth. It is unlikely, then, that Luke would have used the exact same terminology as Paul if he understood there to be an essential difference between the two (especially since such could lead to even greater confusion about the gifts — a confusion which Luke knew plagued the Corinthian church).
5. Same Purpose (a sign for unbelieving Jews)
Acts – On the Day of Pentecost, the gift of tongues was a sign for unbelieving Jews (2:5, 12, 14, 19).
1 Corinthians – As in Acts, the gift of tongues was a sign for unbelieving Jews (14:21–22; cf. Is. 28:11). Note that the gift is even called a “sign” in 14:22 (the word “sign” is from the same Greek word as “sign” in Acts 2:22). Thus, the Corinthian use of tongues was a sign just as the Apostles use of tongues was a sign.
6. Same Connection (with the gift of prophecy)
Acts – The gift of tongues is closely connected with prophecy (2:16–18; 19:6) and with other signs that the Apostles were performing (2:43)
1 Corinthians – As in Acts, the gift of tongues is closely connected with prophecy (all throughout 12–14).
7. Same Reaction from Unbelievers
Acts – Some of the unbelieving Jews at Pentecost accused the apostles of being drunk when they heard them speaking in other tongues (languages which those particular Jews did not understand).
1 Corinthians – Similar to Acts, Paul says that unbelievers will accuse the Corinthians of being mad [not unlike “drunk”] if their tongues go uninterpreted (14:23), and are therefore not understood by the hearer.
The biblical evidence (from the correlating observations above) supports the conclusion that the gift of tongues described in 1 Corinthians consisted of the same phenomenon as the gift of tongues depicted in Acts 2. At the very least, it puts the burden of proof on charismatics who claim that there are different kinds of tongues described in these two New Testament passages.
(It should be noted that when Paul speaks of kinds [genos] of tongues in 1 Corinthians 12:10, he is speaking about different families of languages. He is not differentiating real languages from non-languages. Rather, he is differentiating real languages from one another [e.g. Greek vs. Hebrew vs. Latin]).
One final point. The early church fathers consistently understood the gift of tongues in Acts to be the same as the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians. (For more on that point, click here.) Even the original Pentecostals (e.g. Charles Parham) saw no distinction between the two. The idea that the tongues in 1 Corinthians are categorically different from the tongues in Acts is a distinctly modern charismatic interpretation. In our opinion, it has been forced onto the text in order to justify behavior that would otherwise have no biblical precedent.
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Summing It Up:
1) The manifestation of tongues in Acts 2 was clearly the ability of the apostles to speak in authentic foreign languages which they previously had not learned.
2) The manifestation of tongues in Acts 10 (and by implication Acts 19) is said, by Peter, to have been the same as what occurred in Acts 2.
3) The exegetical and historical evidence indicates that the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians consisted of the same phenomena as that described in Acts.
4) Thus, we conclude that the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians 12–14 was (as in Acts 2) the ability of select believers to speak in authentic foreign languages which they previously had not learned.
5) To assert that the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians is something qualitatively different than a real human language (as in non-rational spiritual prayer speech) is exegetically and contextually untenable when compared with Acts 2.